This contains spoilers for the second episode of AppleTV+’s Foundation.
You don’t have to understand much of what happens in Foundation — and to be clear, I do not — to know that Jared Harris’s character is not going to have an easy go of it. AppleTV+’s big, interplanetary adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s series of novels skips between several timelines, but a crucial one centers on the travails of Harris’s character, Hari Seldon, a man who has developed a theory of “psychohistory” through which he can predict the movements of masses of people, and thus the future of humanity. Because he is played by Jared Harris, he projects an air of quiet authority. Because he is played by Jared Harris, you know things are not going to end well for him. Because things never go well for Jared Harris on TV. The very serious, very British, very sad man cannot catch a break.
By the end of the show’s second episode, just as psychohistory must have predicted, that fate comes to pass. After pissing off the emperor of space (Lee Pace, sans belly button, because he’s a clone) with his predictions, Harris gets sent off to his own little corner of the galaxy with his protégé, Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell, who has to recite so many prime numbers in dialogue, bless her), and her love interest played by Alfred Enoch. Enoch tries to get away with murder (wink wink) and kills Harris on the ship for mysterious reasons, but then Llobell catches him in the act. Enoch rushes her off to an escape pod, framing her for the murder and promising that he loves her, so his motivations remain ever-inscrutable. Meanwhile, Jared Harris is dead! Just two episodes into his own show!
Poor Jared Harris, meeting a terrible fate once again on television. It just keeps happening to the guy. If we jump back to Mad Men, there’s the Ur sad Jared Harris role of Lane Pryce, who comes to the advertising firm to instill some British stiff upper lip in season three and dies by suicide in season five after personal financial collapse. After that, Jared Harris also dies on The Crown, as the ailing King George VI, and on Carnival Row where (I have not watched this, but spoilers! Spoilers for here on out about all Jared Harris roles, to be honest!) he was apparently suffocated with a pillow and had his liver cut out. Before Mad Men, he was a villain on Fringe who got cut in half by a closing portal and then returned in an alternate reality in another season, only to be crumbled to dust through telekinesis.
Even if Harris’s characters don’t die on TV, they definitely always suffer. On The Terror, he’s the last man standing on a naval expedition, which means he lives through the horrifying ends of nearly everyone around him. On Chernobyl, he has to bear witness to the devastation of nuclear radiation and mass government incompetence. On The Expanse, he leads an insurgent group of inhabitants of an asteroid belt, whose lives suck because they happen to be stuck in the asteroid belt. I’m not sure of the outcome of his role in the upcoming British TV series The Beast Must Die, but given that title …
Why must Jared Harris suffer so? What makes it so pleasurable for us to watch him stumble through the slings and arrows of fate, his soul lacerated at every turn? He gives off a naturally upper-class British demeanor, which means that a lot of television shows can deploy him as a metonym for civilized ideals collapsing or eating themselves from the inside. Jared Harris must fall for a new generation to rise, whether that means the coronation of Queen Elizabeth or the collapse of a whole galactic government. In every show you can imagine Jared Harris muttering something about the sun setting on the British Empire, whether or not the British Empire or the sun exists in that TV show’s universe.
Jared Harris does that job very well, good for him. But that’s a lot for one man to have to keep playing, even symbolically, so maybe once in a while he should get to be happy on TV. Given all the timeline-hopping of Foundation, I can imagine that Harris will continue to appear in the show as it carries on. AppleTV+ probably paid good money for him, enough to fit in a few flashbacks, and even if that version of Hari is dead, this is a universe with clones and robots and who knows what else. But television should also give this guy a break at some point. Find someone else to confront systemic collapse for once. Might Harris be able to book a role in a light comedy series? The man is very good at furrowing his brows and mumbling about how we’re all doomed and such, but is there at least a guest-hosting position available for him on The Wine Show?